Mon, Jul 14, 2014 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: ‘Rola’ changing the DNA of Japanese stardom


Japanese fashion model and TV personality Rola poses during an interview in Tokyo on May 20.

Photo: AFP

In celebrity-obsessed Japan, with its conveyor belt of 15-minute stars, a fashion icon known as ‘Rola’ is blazing a meteoric trail at the forefront of a galaxy of mixed-race stars changing the DNA of Japanese pop culture.

Turn on the TV and there is no escaping the bubbly 24-year-old of Bengali, Japanese and Russian descent — she even dominates the commercial breaks. A marketing gold mine, Rola smiles celestially from giant billboards, her wide eyes and girlie pout grace magazine covers and she even greets you at vending machines.

However, Rola, who settled in Japan when she was nine, has done it by turning the entertainment industry on its head, her child-like bluntness slicing through the strict convention that governs Japanese society.

“Whenever people told me to speak politely, I never worried about it,” she told reporters in an interview. “I’m not talking down to anyone. I’m not a comedian; it’s just how I am. It’s just being open-hearted and trying to make people open theirs.”

However, it is not just her quirky charm that is breaking down barriers. Japan’s largely mono-ethnic society — a culture where skin whitening creams are still huge business — has long been mirrored by its entertainment industry.

Rola and host of others are beginning to change that.

A half-British singer and actress who performs as Becky is another superstar with model looks and a huge fan base in Japan, while half-French newscaster Christel Takigawa helped Tokyo win the 2020 Olympic vote as the city’s ambassador for “cool.”

Their rise to fame mirrors a shift in attitudes in Japan, which only opened its doors to the outside world in the middle of the 19th century and where foreigners — those without Japanese nationality, even if they were born here — make up less than 2 percent of a population of 127 million.

“Being of mixed race was once looked down upon,” sociologist Takashi Miyajima said. “Now, foreign entertainers are admired in Japan as something untouchable. You could even say they benefit from positive discrimination.”

Rarely now do you see TV shows without at least one haafu — a rough approximation of the Japanese pronunciation of “half,” used to denote someone of mixed race — such has been the shift.

“Young Japanese women want to be like Rola,” said psychologist Yoko Haruka, a regular on Japanese TV. “They buy the same clothes, bag. It’s like a cartoon world, the baby-face effect... She has the foreign look: long legs, small face, but because she is haafu, she’s not an object of envy at all. She’s an idol like Madonna was, but closer and easier to relate to.”

Rola’s trademark puffing of the cheeks, ditzy catchphrases, infectious giggle and carefree charm have helped make Japan’s most famous ‘It Girl’ a smash hit with legions of adoring fans.

Born of a Bangladeshi father and a half-Japanese, half-Russian mother, Rola’s eccentricities helped overcome the language barrier when she was young, when shoe once showed up at elementary school in pajamas she mistook for her new uniform.

When not shooting commercials for everything from cosmetics or beer to headache pills or battered octopus balls, Rola is at the gym — or fishing.

“When the next trends hit, the haafu boom will calm down a bit,” Haruka said. “But that might take a while.”

For now, Rola’s girl-next-door innocence continues to bewitch.

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